Soloveitchik's Pessah spirit

Because there is so much commentary on each section, Exalted Evening would best be read carefully.

exalted evening book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
exalted evening book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Seder Night: An Exalted Evening Edited by Rabbi Menachem D. Genack OU Press 200 pages; $25 Eighteen years ago this Pessah, the American Jewish world mourned the passing of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one of the standard-bearers of what is often referred to as modern or centrist Orthodoxy. It therefore seems appropriate that the Orthodox Union's new OU Press division has chosen as its first work a Haggada with commentary drawn from Soloveitchik's lectures and writings over the course of 40 years. "The Rav," as he was known among his disciples at Yeshiva University and in the Boston community he helped put on the Jewish map, was famously reluctant to put his teachings on paper. But thanks to audiotapes and notes kept by scores of former students, Soloveitchik's own sparse writings have been supplemented by many published volumes of his lectures. The OU Press plans a full series of liturgical books with Soloveitchik commentary to add another dimension to the existing corpus. Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the OU's Kashrut Division, serves as general editor of the series. He is also co-editor of Mesorah, a journal expanding on his late mentor's teachings, as well as "Shiurei Harav," scholarly volumes based on Soloveitchik's lectures as interpreted by his students. Genack sits on the board of the Toras Horav Foundation headed by Soloveitchik's daughters Tovah Lichtenstein and Atarah Twersky, which has published 15 English and Hebrew works. Many of the Rav's Pessah insights have been disseminated in previous books, such as Rabbi Joel Wolowelsky's Festival of Freedom: Essays on Pesah and the Haggadah and the 2008 Haggadah for Passover with Commentary Based on the Shiurim of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik by Rabbi Yosef Adler. However, this new Haggada is unique in its breadth and format. "[W]e have quoted extensively, sometimes in slightly abridged form, from the Rav's written works," writes Genack in the preface. He also gleaned material from a collection of transcribed tapes and his own lecture notes from his days in Soloveitchik's classroom. These sources are cited in the text and helpfully listed in full at the end of the book. Though Soloveitchik was a cerebral talmudist and Maimonidean scholar in the tradition of his father and grandfather, he was also a deeply emotional observer of committed Jewish living. Genack has said it was challenging to choose a reasonable mixture of Halacha and philosophy from Soloveitchik's vast material, and it appears he did his job well. Thus, for example, the Kiddush section includes both a talmudic discussion of the permissibility of using grape juice in place of wine and a thoughtful exposition on the profundity hinted at in the passage, "And the heaven and the earth were finished, all the host of them." Soloveitchik viewed the Haggada as "a fusion of the spoken word and the physiological functions of eating and drinking" and the Seder night as "a night of ecstasy, love and gratitude," a time when "the Jew is God-aware and God-loving; he suddenly reminds himself of the many acts of endless kindness for which he is indebted to his maker." The reader will find some little-known viewpoints described here. Regarding the Four Questions, Soloveitchik told his students that according to Maimonides, this passage "was not designed for the child; it is too difficult a text." In his own home, Soloveitchik revealed, the formulaic questions were never recited solo by the youngest participant. "Provoking children to ask and arousing their curiosity does not mean working with them for weeks... to memorize a text," he said, adding that the halachic requirement "is that the child should ask spontaneously, not be coached in advance." The Haggada text appears in Hebrew and English on facing pages. The commentary is in English with many transliterated Hebrew terms, using a contemporary style of transliteration. This is at first glance a bit jarring; it is unusual to see "mazzah" with dots under the z's rather than "matza" as in most traditional renderings. However, the style is refreshing and consistent. Because there is so much commentary on each section, Exalted Evening would best be read carefully, and perhaps notated, well before Seder night. Though it is clear and readable, it is not lightweight in either concept or vocabulary. The Rav was, after all, an erudite academician with a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Berlin. I used a dictionary to check such words as "ontological" (having to do with the nature of being and reality), "axiological" (having to do with the nature of values) and "insensate" (without feeling). As for its utility at the table, the book has one drawback: The pages do not lie flat. Years of attempting to keep my place with my elbow as I dipped celery or held the Hillel sandwich have made me partial to Haggadot that are constructed to stay open to the page. Still, this volume is valuable enough that I will make an exception at this year's Seder.